Stranded in the Darien Gap…

You have probably heard about the Darien Gap before… the no-man’s land in between Panama and Colombia.  The forbidden jungles that the U.S. Travel Advisory strongly warns against because of the dangers of drug couriers, poisonous snakes, and extreme underdevelopment.

Well I was there – just 10 miles from the Colombian border – and it was great!  The only hope that I had of getting out was the faith that Air Panama knew what they were doing.

Let’s take a few steps back…

A couple of years ago, and after many years of constant badgering, I finally convinced my New York born-and-raised parents to visit me in Panama.  The only instruction I gave them was to fly into PTY airport and I would have the rest covered.

On Saturday, March 21st, I met my parents at the airport.  No delayed flights.  No lost luggage.  No problems getting through customs.  We were off to a great start.

Our first excursion outside of Panama City was to Isla Contadora in the Pearl Island archipelago – a quiet, rustic island with crystal azure waters and absolutely stunning beaches.  We had a fabulous 3-day getaway exploring the island on golf cart, tasting the different mojitos at each beach bar, and enjoying freshly caught seafood from the surrounding Pacific waters.  Wednesday morning came far too quickly, but it was time to go back to Panama City.  Dad had to catch his midday flight back to New York to be home in time for Thursday morning meetings with executives and clients.

On Wednesday morning we arrived to the Air Panama check-in booth (which was approximately the size of a garden tool shed) at 8:30am, as advised by Jose (the one-man operating manager).  What Jose failed to mention the day before was that the 9:15 a.m. flight, which was scheduled to arrive to the Albrook Airport at 9:35 a.m., had a new route.  It was going to make a few pit stops on the way, and would arrive into Albrook around 11:30 a.m.  Now take note that Albrook is a 35-minute drive from PTY International – with no traffic. But in Panama City there is always traffic.

“Dad, did you hear that?!  Your flight out of PTY International is at 12:50 p.m., there is no way you’re going to make it in time.”  Dad was flustered and quite peeved.  I explained the situation to Jose, and he said it was no problem, we’ll just make 2 out of the 4 pit stops and be in Albrook by 10:15 a.m.   Still cutting it close, but it was doable.

We were off.  The first stop to San Jose Island took no more than 7 minutes.  5 people unloaded and 6 of us remained.  The second, and final, stop was to Puerto Piña in Darien Province, about 20 minutes away.  Flying into Puerto Piña was one of the most breathtaking aerial views I have ever seen – Pacific waves breaking on the rocky cliffs, rolling lush jungles, and rivers winding through the greenery.

However, this landing was bumpier – much bumpier.  My initial thought was that this airstrip, which appeared to be much nicer than the grass airstrip in San Jose, needed to be patched up.  Then we stopped in the middle of the runaway.  Dad shouted, “The tire popped!”  The other 5 of us fled to the windows on left side of the Cessna caravan to check it out.  There it was – a busted tire.  We had to de-board.  Waiting time?  THREE TO FOUR HOURS.   You would think that planes would carry a spare tire like a car does, right?  Wrong.  NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING IN LATIN AMERICA.

We all exited the plane to do a double check of the tire. only to see it was in fact punctured.  Also confirmed by a fisherman holding his freshly caught 25-pound red snapper, two military guards, and local onlookers.  A lingering Panamanian (who was neither the pilot nor on our flight) explained in English that we had to wait for a new tire.

Who was this guy by the way?  The Pan American highway ended 100 miles before this town and there were no other roads in or out.  A boat from Panama City would take 5 hours.  And there were no spare planes to bring us a new tire.

Our only option?  Wait.

A local man sitting on a bench in the open-aired “waiting palapa” explained in Spanish that he has been waiting since Saturday to get out of Darien.  Today was Wednesday.

He was calm.  No pasa nada.

Dad on the other hand, not so calm.  His phone wouldn’t connect to the cellular network.  My local phone was dead and there were no outlets. There was no store to buy an international phone and SIM card.  No ATM to take out cash to pay for any telephone services.  And Wi-Fi?  Yeah right.  Dad was going to miss his flight and had no way to update his NYC corporate partners.

Then the lingering man appeared again – this time with an iPhone in hand for Dad to use.  We were scavenging through Dad’s printed reservation copies (must be a generational thing to still print reservations), only to realize it didn’t include phone numbers for American Airlines.  Then we hear, “Oh do you need American’s number?”

The American man on our plane from Contadora had their 1-800 number in his contacts.  My parents instantly accepted this gentleman into our “group” – Eric was his name.

Eric was in Panama finishing up filming a Survivor-type series on an island off of Contadora, and he was finally on his way back home to LA for 24 hours.  He was scheduled to go to Cambodia the next day.

After twenty minutes of back-and-forth conversation with the agent and plenty of waiting, Dad returned to the benches and told us his only options were a 3 p.m. flight or 12:50 p.m. tomorrow.   He booked tomorrow – just in case.

The lingering Panamanian then introduced himself.  His name was Jose Manuel, and he was the manager of a fishing resort about 25 minutes away by boat.  Great.  Now we knew we had accommodations in case four hours turned into twenty-four hours.

Jose Manuel offered to take the four of us (Mom, Dad, Eric, and me) on a tour of the “town.”  What else were we going to do?   We gathered our carry-on items and followed our eager guide down the path into town.

The town was home to 2,000 people.  Most were family members who had been there for generations.  Jose Manuel made sure we visited every building.  The local church.  His house.  His mother-in-law’s house.  His family bar (which was named Fondo Laura – Mom got a kick out of that since her name is Laura).  The soccer field.  Everyone in town knew him, and we felt like celebrities.  Left and right, the locals were waving and welcome us to their community.  We stopped by the school classrooms and popped our heads in to say hello to the students.  One room was learning the importance of hygiene.

Of course I had to remind them to “se cepillan los dientes dos veces cada dia.”  They looked at me blindly – I must have butchered the accent.

We chatted with Jose’s friend who was walking down the road with a chicken clutched in his hand – still alive.  We passed his neighbor’s home – they just finished the thatched roof of their house.  And of course, we stopped at the disco bar.  It was 10:30 a.m., but Jose Manuel insisted we stop inside to see where the locals spend their time and sit for a bit.  We were the only ones there, besides the janitor/bartender.  Mom, Dan, and Eric grabbed cold beers, and we cooled down in front of the dance floor’s industrial-sized fans.

We left shortly thereafter for another bar – this time a “second floor rooftop bar” that had lovely 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, lush jungle, and the airstrip (we needed to have airstrip view for updating purposes).  We cranked on the CD in the large, 1990s-style boom box, grabbed a Balboa from the cooler, and made ourselves comfortable for this undetermined wait.

When lunchtime rolled around, Mom went back to the puddle-jumper to retrieve her food bag.  She made everyone peanut butter and mini banana saltine sandwiches, which were actually pretty tasty.  Even Jose Manuel enjoyed it.  Since as long as I can remember, she has been packing this “emergency stash of food,” and, after 24-years, it finally came in handy – which she will continue to carry around.

Dad tried to connect to the cellular network, while Mom tried to dance salsa, and Eric reflected on stories about his travels. Eric and Mom decided that they are going to start a TV series called “Traveling with Mom,” which may (or may not) air in the near future.  We made friends with the locals and shared plenty of laughter together.

Five hours after initially crashing down, help arrived from Panama City.  Mom and Dad ran to the plane anticipating a quick fix, as Eric and I enjoyed another drink.  No need to rush – as it did take another 30 minutes and five Air Panama agents to get the tire on properly.   Dad, being the construction executive that he is, stood over the agents the entire time to ensure it was being done correctly.   It was.

55 minutes after re-boarding, we landed in Albrook.  Our cab driver had left, since we were scheduled to get in at 9:35 a.m. (even though Eric’s cab driver had been there since 9:35 a.m.!!!), and we headed to the Ocean Club Hotel for some real R&R.

Despite being stuck in the Darien for an extra 6 hours, and Dad missing his flight, it was one memorable trip.  One that I am glad happened. It is the unexpected times like that where you learn to be flexible, enjoy being in the moment, and truly appreciate the company around you.

Update:  Eric did make his 6 p.m. flight from PTY to LAX…and then headed to Cambodia.